“No, never in my whole life have I met a woman who can compare with this Marie-Anne! What grace and what dignity! Ah! her beauty is divine!”
So Martial was thinking while returning to Sairmeuse after his proposals to M. Lacheneur.
At the risk of losing his way he took the shortest course, which led across the fields and over ditches, which he leaped with the aid of his gun.
He found a pleasure, entirely novel and very delightful, in picturing Marie-Anne as he had just seen her, blushing and paling, about to swoon, then lifting her head haughtily in her pride and disdain.
Who would have suspected that such indomitable energy and such an impassioned soul was hidden beneath such girlish artlessness and apparent coldness? What an adorable expression illumined her face, what passion shone in those great black eyes when she looked at that little fool d’Escorval! What would not one give to be regarded thus, even for a moment? How could the boy help being crazy about her?
He himself loved her, without being, as yet, willing, to confess it. What other name could be given to this passion which had overpowered reason, and to the furious desires which agitated him?
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “she shall be mine. Yes, she shall be mine; I will have her!”
Consequently he began to study the strategic side of the undertaking which this resolution involved with the sagacity of one who had not been without an extended experience in such matters.
His debut, he was forced to admit, had been neither fortunate nor adroit. Conveyed compliments and money had both been rejected. If Marie-Anne had heard his covert insinuations with evident horror, M. Lacheneur had received, with even more than coldness, his advances and his offers of actual wealth.
Moreover, he remembered Chanlouineau’s terrible eyes.
“How he measured me, that magnificent rustic!” he growled. “At a sign from Marie-Anne he would have crushed me like an eggshell, without a thought of my ancestors. Ah! does he also love her? There will be three rivals in that case.”
But the more difficult and even perilous the undertaking seemed, the more his passions were inflamed.
“My failures can be repaired,” he thought. “Occasions of meeting shall not be wanting. Will it not be necessary to hold frequent interviews with Monsieur Lacheneur in effecting a formal transfer of Sairmeuse? I will win him over to my side. With the daughter my course is plain. Profiting by my unfortunate experience, I will, in the future, be as timid as I have been bold; and she will be hard to please if she is not flattered by this triumph of her beauty. D’Escorval remains to be disposed of ——”
But this was the point upon which Martial was most exercised.
He had, it is true, seen this rival rudely dismissed by M. Lacheneur; and yet the anger of the latter had seemed to him too great to be absolutely real.
He suspected a comedy, but for whose benefit? For his, or for Chanlouineau’s? And yet, what could possibly be the motive?
“And yet,” he reflected, “my hands are tied; and I cannot call this little d’Escorval to account for his insolence. To swallow such an affront in silence is hard. Still, he is brave, there is no denying that; perhaps I can find some other way to provoke his anger. But even then, what could I do? If I harmed a hair of his head, Marie-Anne would never forgive me. Ah! I would give a handsome sum in exchange for some little device to send him out of the country.”
Revolving in his mind these plans, whose frightful consequences he could neither calculate nor foresee, Martial was walking up the avenue leading to the chateau, when he heard hurried footsteps behind him.
He turned, and seeing two men running after him and motioning him to stop, he paused.
It was Chupin, accompanied by one of his sons.
This old rascal had been enrolled among the servants charged with preparing Sairmeuse for the reception of the duke; and he had already discovered the secret of making himself useful to his master, which was by seeming to be indispensable.
“Ah, Monsieur,” he cried, “we have been searching for you everywhere, my son and I. It was Monsieur le Duc ——”
“Very well,” said Martial, dryly. “I am returning ——”
But Chupin was not sensitive; and although he had not been very favorably received, he ventured to follow the marquis at a little distance, but sufficiently near to make himself heard. He also had his schemes; for it was not long before he began a long recital of the calumnies which had been spread about the neighborhood in regard to the Lacheneur affair. Why did he choose this subject in preference to any other? Did he suspect the young marquis’s passion for Marie-Anne?
According to this report, Lacheneur — he no longer said “monsieur”— was unquestionably a rascal; the complete surrender of Sairmeuse was only a farce, as he must possess thousands, and hundreds of thousands of francs, since he was about to marry his daughter.
If the scoundrel had felt only suspicions, they were changed into certainty by the eagerness with which Martial demanded:
“How! is Mademoiselle Lacheneur to be married?”
“And to whom?”
“To Chanlouineau, the fellow whom the peasants wished to kill yesterday upon the square, because he was disrespectful to the duke. He is an avaricious man; and if Marie-Anne does not bring him a good round sum as a dowry, he will never marry her, no matter how beautiful she may be.”
“Are you sure of what you say?”
“It is true. My eldest son heard from Chanlouineau and from Lacheneur that the wedding would take place within a month.”
And turning to his son:
“Is it not true, boy?”
“Yes,” promptly replied the youth, who had heard nothing of the kind.
Martial was silent, ashamed, perhaps, of allowing himself to listen to the gossip, but glad to have been informed of such an important circumstance.
If Chupin was not telling a falsehood — and what reason could he have for doing so — it became evident that M. Lacheneur’s conduct concealed some great mystery. Why, without some potent motive, should he have refused to give his daughter to Maurice d’Escorval whom she loved, to bestow her upon a peasant?
As he reached Sairmeuse, he was swearing that he would discover this motive. A strange scene awaited him. In the broad open space extending from the front of the chateau to the parterre lay a huge pile of all kinds of clothing, linen, plate, and furniture. One might have supposed that the occupants of the chateau were moving. A half dozen men were running to and fro, and standing in the centre of the rubbish was the Duc de Sairmeuse, giving orders.
Martial did not understand the whole meaning of the scene at first. He went to his father, and after saluting him respectfully, inquired:
“What is all this?”
M. de Sairmeuse laughed heartily.
“What! can you not guess?” he replied. “It is very simple, however. When the lawful master, on his return, sleeps beneath the bed-coverings of the usurper, it is delightful, the first night, not so pleasant on the second. Everything here reminds me too forcibly of Monsieur Lacheneur. It seems to me that I am in his house; and the thought is unendurable. So I have had them collect everything belonging to him and to his daughter — everything, in fact, which did not belong to the chateau in former years. The servants will put it all into a cart and carry it to him.”
The young marquis gave fervent thanks to Heaven that he had arrived before it was too late. Had his father’s project been executed, he would have been obliged to bid farewell to all his hopes.
“You surely will not do this, Monsieur le Duc?” said he, earnestly.
“And why, pray? Who will prevent me from doing it?”
“No one, most assuredly. But you will decide, on reflection, that a man who has not conducted himself too badly has a right to some consideration.”
The duke seemed greatly astonished.
“Consideration!” he exclaimed. “This rascal has a right to some consideration! Well, this is one of the poorest of jokes. What! I give him — that is to say — you give him a hundred thousand francs, and that will not content him! He is entitled to consideration! You, who are after the daughter, may give it to him if you like, but I shall do as I like!”
“Very well; but, Monsieur, I would think twice, if I were in your place. Lacheneur has surrendered Sairmeuse. That is all very well; but how can you authenticate your claim to the property? What would you do if, in case you imprudently irritated him, he should change his mind? What would become of your right to the estate?”
M. Sairmeuse actually turned green.
“Zounds!” he exclaimed. “I had not thought of that. Here, you fellows, take all these things back again, and that quickly!”
And as they were obeying his order:
“Now,” he remarked, “let us hasten to Courtornieu. They have already sent for us twice. It must be business of the utmost importance which demands our attention.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50